Local NAACP seeking proof of commitment to minority hiring in Pittsfield


PITTSFIELD -- The local NAACP chapter is asking city government and the school department for tangible proof of a commitment to hiring minority job applicants.

President Will Singleton and other chapter members issued the challenge during a meeting of Pittsfield's newly reactivated Affirmative Action Advisory Committee. He and others also explained the rights group's decision to file a complaint in November against the city with state and federal agencies, alleging long-term discrimination.

"I'm glad to hear about some things that are being done," Singleton said of steps taken since last fall to attract more minority candidates for municipal and school positions.

But he added that, just as he wants the NAACP to judge his leadership on the basis of verifiable progress, the chapter thinks the city should be judged in the same manner. For example, Singleton said, visitors to City Hall today see, almost exclusively, employees who are white.

"I don't see anyone who looks like me," he said.

In fact, Singleton said, the observation that there are few people of color in government positions in Pittsfield helped spur reactivation of the dormant Berkshire NAACP chapter in December 2012.

Asked by advisory committee members Cecilia Rock and Bryan House why the NAACP hasn't appointed a representative to the group -- as originally planned last summer -- Singleton said that for him and others "the perception became that we were getting more rhetoric than action" from city and school officials.

"But now the groundwork is being laid," said House. "We would definitely benefit from having the NAACP here. This is happening now."

Singleton said he intends to bring up the subject of NAACP participation again at the chapter's next executive committee meeting, along with the committee's data on progress in attracting more minority job candidates -- and more candidates in general -- through new online posting protocols.

Among several steps the NAACP would like to see action on, Singleton said, are formal re-adoption of the city's affirmative action policy and plan -- now being updated -- by the mayor's office and the City Council.

The 37-page plan was adopted by the council in 1991 and updated in 1994, but it had been inactive for many years before Singleton asked last year whether the city had a policy. City Director of Administrative Services Mary McGinnis said after the meeting Wednesday that the committee is still reviewing the policy and plan and considering revisions and updates.

Singleton also proposed making the advisory committee an official city commission and regular participation by people of color on hiring committees and in developing municipal and school job descriptions.

Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi said Thursday he intends to submit an updated plan to the council for approval if he receives a recommendation from the advisory committee. Among changes that have been considered are those necessary to mesh with the latest federal and state hiring regulations or policies.

Concerning actions taken by the city since last summer, Bianchi said, "We have been working very hard to examine our hiring practices to make them up-to-date and relevant."

McGinnis and others also "have put together a vibrant advisory committee that is active and engaged and wants to do the best job possible," he said.

City Personnel Department and school department personnel employees also are working "to make our hiring practices more proactive," the mayor said.

Personnel Director John DeAngelo and Personnel Technician Michael Taylor from city government and Harry Hayes, human resources director in the schools, are members of the 11-member advisory committee, which also includes representatives of local organizations or groups. The personnel officials have reported an increase in the number and diversity of job candidates through changes in advertising that in part target minority job-seekers.

NAACP members also gave a presentation to the committee of statistics they said show minorities are not represented among the city's approximately 2,000 employees at rates approaching the number of minority residents.

Judy Williamson of the NAACP cited statistics that show wide income disparities between whites and minority residents. She said economic disparity related to government job opportunities are a factor in the failure of many children of color from preschool through adulthood.

In addition, she said, minority students are much more likely to be disciplined in school or to land in the criminal justice system, where they acquire a record and a stigma. The situation creates a "pipeline to prison," she said.

The intent of most people in the city or in the schools may not be racist in nature, Singleton said, but unless there are proactive efforts and the numbers of minority employees rise, the effect becomes "institutionalized racism."

During Hayes' report on efforts to attract minority candidates for three principal openings in Pittsfield schools, advisory committee member Warren Dews, also vice president of audience development, sales and marketing at New England Newspapers, said it is important to have a diverse group recommending on outreach efforts. "A lot of people in the community would be willing to be on that team; I'm one," Dews said.

Shirley Edgerton of the NAACP stressed a need for "cultural competence" in applicant outreach and hiring efforts, meaning having people involved who are aware of the problems of those who face discrimination or racism. Speaking of the schools, she and Williamson said middle class white educators, even when well-intentioned, often misunderstand the actions of minority students or fail to see practical, effective ways of helping them achieve success.

Asked Thursday about the NAACP's discrimination complaint, Singleton said the state Attorney General's Office and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have said they could only respond to a specific allegation of discrimination, not one alleging long-term, wide-spread discrimination.

The federal departments of Labor and Justice have been in contact with the chapter, he said, but have not yet issued a formal response to the allegations.

To reach Jim Therrien:
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On Twitter: @BE_therrien


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